I’d save the world, but they won’t let me
03 April 2009
The face of that familiar figure, the government nanny, is changing. Until recently, she was a scary, smiling appropriateness-enforcer with a hint of Cell Block H about her. In the imagination, she looked a bit like Harriet Harman.
The new type of nanny is rather different. She is a gentle, middle-aged biddy to whom hard times in the past have brought a twinkly practical wisdom. For her, the model of correct behaviour is not to be found beyond some bright New Labour dawn but in the past. The best response to current difficulties, she has quietly been reminding us through various government quangos, lies in ourselves.
To defeat recession and to fight the enemy of climate change, a wartime spirit of frugality and improvisation is required. Across the country, in allotments, we should be digging for victory once more by growing our own vegetables. Our cosseted, square-eyed children should be allowed to visit the countryside and enjoy a Blytonesque sense of freedom and adventure.
The 1940s and 1950s have become part of the propaganda war to make us all behave better. This week, the Energy Trust launched a Wartime Spirit initiative at the Imperial War Museum. In semi-jokey mode, the museum has re-issued the 1943 pamphlet How to Make and Mend.
Entering into the spirit of the thing, the chief executive of the Energy Trust has said sensible wartime practices like recycling bathwater for use in the garden will “go a long way to saving energy and reducing our carbon footprint”.
A similar message has come from Natural England which has been encouraging parents to take their “cotton-wool kids” to woods, heaths and other wild places to let them roam free. Over at the National Trust, a grow-your-own-vegetable propaganda campaign is under way. “This is about our survival, in much the same way Dig for Victory was about our survival,” one of the organisers has said.
All this sounds suspiciously like the statement of the blindingly obvious. Waste is bad. Growing your own food is healthy. Exercise and playing outdoors should be part of childhood.
The problem is that, while individuals have been making changes in their private lives, the macro world of government and big business have lumbered along in the same old, unimaginative way. Supermarkets continue to clog up the planet with absurd, unnecessary packaging, wastefully selling only vegetables that have to adhere to artificial aesthetic standards. Manufacturers actively sabotage any attempt to make and mend by marketing goods which are cheaper to replace than to repair. The wartime spirit, in other words, is fine so long as it has no effect on profits.
The government, as obsessed as ever in matters of health and safety, are utterly inflexible when it comes to the kind of scruffy improvisation that is an essential part of living frugally. The idea of keeping bathwater for use in the garden, for example, may be sensible but, unless building regulations have changed since I oversaw the building of a house seven years ago, is not actually allowed under law.
It is not improbably romantic to invoke the communal spirit of the past. People are becoming less wasteful, perhaps even more aware of the needs of others, but these changes in attitude had not percolated upwards into the boardrooms of the mighty in big business and government.
The nannyish message from Britain’s quangocracy about the need to make the world a less profligate and money-driven place might usefully be delivered closer to home.
Why, why, why does Sir Tom get a raw deal?
It is very unwise to make even the mildest humorous comment about Wales, and so perhaps this story should be told straight.
The director of the Institute for Welsh Affairs John Osman has effectively blamed the greatest living Welshman Sir Tom Jones for propagating defeatism in his own country with that great hit from 1968, “Delilah”. “What is it about this tune, and the lyrics, that so appeals to the Welsh psyche?” asks Osman. “Can it be something to do with a Welsh obsession with defeat and victimhood?”
“Delilah” has been causing trouble elsewhere. Plaid Cymru’s Helen Mary Jones has suggested that, with its themes of prostitution and domestic violence, it should not be sung from the terraces at rugby matches.
These are weighty matters but dare I suggest that, if there is any victim in these debates, it is “Delilah”? The song is about a man who kills his unfaithful lover. She is not a prostitute. There are many thousands of songs of betrayed love, and in all of them a certain level of defeat is to be expected. Oh, and the song was written by two Englishmen.
When the Passion is re-told in Playmobil
A rather touching tale of religious devotion has emerged from Eschborn in Hesse, Germany.
For the past two years, an evangelical preacher called the Reverend Markus Bomhard has been preaching the good word by fashioning Playmobil figures into scenes from the Bible story, then posting them on the internet.
He added candle-wax breasts to the model of Eve and had to use a hairdryer to get the crucifixion scene just right. “The fingers wouldn’t spread out properly,” he has explained.
“Then I had to let it harden again before I could nail it to the cross.”
Thoughtlessly, the company Playmobil have chosen the run-up to Easter to force the Reverend Bomhard to abandon his mission.
Crucifying dolls should only be done in private, the firm has said.